This Time It Was Me: One Young Person’s Struggle With Homelessness

Jul. 29, 2014 / By

Ed note: In America, a person is considered to be in poverty if they make under $11,000 a year, meaning most people with minimum wage jobs are in poverty and one in 45 children in the U.S. experience homelessness each year. In Long Beach, 22.8 percent of people are living in poverty.

People tend to think that poverty is the stuff they see in movies — people sleeping on the streets, doing drugs, and all that kind of stuff. But the reality is very different.

Last year, I ended up being homeless for at least six months. It was odd how I fell into it. I had been living with my mother, but when she decided to move back to the Inland Empire, where I knew nothing could happen for me as a filmmaker, I chose to stay in Long Beach.

I knew that if I went with my mother I would be miserable. I would have been sharing a cramped room with her and possibly my older sister and her baby boy. I worried that I would fall into complacency, where the next thing you know, I’m still in some boring town working a job I hate, wondering why I’m there.

When I was 17, I saw the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and it changed everything for me. I knew right then that movie-making was what I needed to do with my life. Long Beach is close to Los Angeles, where all the work is and where all the films are being made. It’s a city where people are creative and want to collaborate, filled with all kinds of inspiration.

Having decided to stay, I lived with friends at first. It started out okay — I paid for my own food with food stamps, and the deal was that I’d stay for a few weeks until I could find some place more stable.  But a few weeks soon turned into half a year of me not being able to find a job or pay rent.

Getting a job is not easy for anyone and it was especially difficult for me, a gender non-conforming woman of color who doesn’t dress like a typical woman. Waking into a place you can tell what kind of atmosphere it is and if you’re going to fit in, and I could tell I wasn’t going to fit in at most of the places I applied.

As I remained jobless, my roommates began acting differently with me. I could feel a tension — like they didn’t want me around, like I was a burden. Soon enough, I got kicked out of that house.

That’s when things started to really go downhill. I went from a semi-stable situation to floating from floor to floor at my friends’ houses and apartments. Every day stress and anxiety continued to pile up because there was a very real possibility that I would be sleeping on the sidewalk soon. Those who haven’t been in that kind of situation might think that asking friends to stay over is easy and painless. Those people would be very wrong.

First of all, asking friends if you can stay with them because you’re homeless is embarrassing because being homeless is embarrassing. It’s like a huge sign is flashing over your head, saying that you aren’t an independent adult. Or at least that’s how it feels because not only are you telling your friends, you’re also telling your friends’ friends and so on, because the more people who know, the more chances there are that someone will be able to help you.

It took a while for me to figure out some kind of plan. I did consider shelters, but those didn’t work because I am a student at Long Beach Community College and the shelters have very strict curfews. They generally stop letting people in around 2 p.m. and since Long Beach has one of the highest counts of homeless people among major cities, they fill up quickly. Shelters were scary too, because I had heard of all kinds of bad things happening in shelters, including theft. I was carrying my whole life with me and couldn’t afford to have anything stolen.

Finally I went down to the General Relief office and obtained a hotel voucher. For those who don’t know, a hotel voucher allows you to stay in a hotel for up to two weeks. Many people who get this relief don’t have to pay it back, but it is a loan. To get your voucher faster, I would suggest going to the Multi-Service center and talking to the General Relief counselor who can give you a slip that will put you in the front of the line, because trust me, the lines get very long.

Staying in the hotel was probably the least stressful time I spent while I was homeless. I had a curfew, which forced me to actually sleep. Sleeping properly helped lessen the depression I was feeling, and having time to myself greatly improved my mood.

The only problem with the hotel was how the workers treated guests like homeless people instead of humans. They had odd rules — you couldn’t keep the key to the room, you had to return it to a little hole in the desk immediately after you opened your door, and if you missed the curfew at night, even if your belongings were in the room, they wouldn’t let you in. The staff always seemed ready to call the police on us — as they did at least once when I was there. I felt like they were judging us because they knew we had nowhere else to go.

During my time at the hotel, I was lucky enough to work up an arrangement to stay with my uncle in his apartment. He let me sleep on an air mattress in his living room, which was not anywhere near where I’d thought I’d be at 23 years of age, but was a lot better than where I was at 22.

After a few months I discovered that my uncle was too behind on his rent and that the owner of the apartment was planning to sell it — we had about a month to find a new place to live.  I found myself on the verge of floating once again.

Finally, I moved in with a friend, this time as roommate, not a burden. I pay rent thanks to working security part time and my mom helping out, not to mention that I have started a photography and videography business. For my business I use some professional open source programs for editing and have managed to buy some used equipment on the cheap.

Now I can sleep whenever I feel like it, cook real food, and most importantly, I have a roof over my head.

Being homeless was the most depressing and confusing experience I’ve ever had in my entire life, but in the long run I stick with the choice I made, to pursue my dream. For me, filmmaking is a passion, that thing that doesn’t let me stop. I don’t know if I can say that I have hopes anymore, but I do have plans. I’m going to continue growing my business and my “media empire,” as I have recently deemed it. I’m writing screenplays and I plan to take a film production class in college, where I will be able to make my own film and enter it in a film festival like Cannes or Tribeca.The only thing I really hope for now is for my plans to happen more quickly than I think they will.

I have behemoth dreams, and I know that I may be chasing something I will never get. I could totally fail at this and be back at square one, but ultimately I feel much better trying to get something I love rather than taking the safe way out, which is really never actually safe.

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Chelcee Bunkley

Chelcee Bunkley is 22 year old college freshman attending Long Beach City College and a Southern California native, living in Long Beach since 2009. Chelcee is passionate about film-making, writing, and photography and looks forward to the challenges and victories that come with being an independent filmmaker, freelance photographer and writer. She is an active volunteer at the Gay and Lesbian Center of Long Beach. She hopes to tell stories that will help people in some form, whether it be with knowledge of resources, emotionally, or any other way possible.